‘People, Places and Things’ Is A Powerful Depiction of Addiction: Review

Photo by Kevin Schmid via Unsplash


Content warning: Discusses themes of drug and alcohol addiction. Places which support can be found here.

It’s very easy to see from the off why Denise Gough won an Olivier for her performance in People, Places and Things back in 2016, even if you did not see the show the first time around. She is utterly magnetic as Emma, the drug and alcohol addicted actress whose recovery is at the centre of the play. Her physicality is quite astonishing as we see Emma run the gamut from writhing agony as she goes through withdrawal from alcohol and drugs, to ecstatic joy as we watch her raving in a nightclub during a relapse. Movement director Polly Bennett really excels here as it is her movement direction and the way that Gough commits so utterly to it that brings the play to life. There’s quite a beautiful irony in the honesty of Gough’s portrayal of Emma, given how much of a compulsive liar the character is but it works incredibly well.

Duncan Macmillan’s writing is stunning throughout. A story about addiction is not something that you would necessarily expect to be funny and whilst People, Places and Things is certainly not a comedy, it’s brutal and harrowing to watch in places. However, Macmillan uses comedy in his writing to great effect: the balance between the laugh out loud moments and the despair that comes from the depth’s of Emma’s addiction makes both the sad moments and the funny ones more impactful than if they were used in isolation. The humour allows for a release of tension but it also keeps the audience on our toes as you’re never quite sure where the play is going to go next. Macmillan’s dialogue is some of the sharpest and funniest I’ve heard in a while, and Gough’s acerbic delivery is pitched perfectly.

The way the play is put together from a storytelling perspective is incredibly layered: Emma being an actress is no coincidence, the crux of the entire story rests on Emma’s propensity to always live her life as if she is playing another part and never be fully honest about who she is and how this hampers her recovery. Emma presents herself with such confidence that the audience is pulled into her performance and convinced by it and it makes the way the plot unravels very effective.

Whilst Gough is naturally the star, there are stunning performances to be found amongst the ensemble cast as well. Malachi Kirby as Mark is a particular highlight, his push and pull with Gough is a joy to watch and his quiet, laid back charisma is an interesting contrast against her more manic energy. Sinead Cusack multi-roles with aplomb, switching seamlessly between Emma’s doctor to her therapist and finally to her mother, a device which ends up being very rewarding.

Tom Gibbon’s sound design is quite overwhelming in places, the sound effects are very loud and could be quite unsettling especially when there were very loud bangs. It works very well as a way of showing us Emma’s frenetic mind particularly in combination with James Farncombe’s strobe lighting design but the frequent loud noises combined with complete blackouts in portions of the show could be quite jarring and did make me jump several times so it’s something for those who are particularly sensitive to loud noises to be aware of.

Bunny’s Christie’s set is deceptively simple, with the backdrop to the show being a white tiled room but it was a joy to watch the different layers of the set be revealed throughout the play and the way Christie transforms a relatively small space is truly remarkable. Keeping the set background simple allows us to focus in wholly on Emma and also means the space can be very quickly and cleverly adapted into different settings. The choice to have onstage seating for some of the audience really adds to the sense that Emma is being observed from all angles.

There are some weaker aspects to the play, the updated references to COVID, Trump and Ukraine to reflect the almost ten years that have passed since its debut felt somewhat shoehorned in and unnecessary, and the group therapy sessions that make up much of the first act are little long in places which makes the first act feel a little lagging in comparison to the second.

Ultimately, People, Places and Things is a powerful depiction of addiction, anchored by an incredible leading performance and a wonderful supporting cast. Everything from the movement, set, light and sound come together brilliantly to create a truly unique and slightly unsettling in places piece of theatre and though it’s one that will not be for everyone due to the heavy subject matter, if you feel you can handle it, it’s well worth the watch to see Denise Gough’s tour de force performance and a unique and interesting piece of theatre.

People, Places and Things is on at the Trafalgar Theatre till 10 August. Tickets are available here.

Words By Jo Elliott

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